(I have been asked to write a short introduction to Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta and would like to test it on you, dear readers. Any comment or criticism would be more than welcome!)
In its full-fledged form, the Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta (henceforth VV) is a Vedāntic school, thus one which accepts the authority of the Upaniṣads, the Brahmasūtra and the Bhagavadgītā and which recognises a form of God as brahman (on the various ways of understanding God in India, see here). The full-fledged VV accepts also further groups of texts, namely on the one hand the Pañcarātra (a group of Vaiṣṇava texts prescribing personal and temple rituals, see Leach 2012, and, here) and on the other the Tamil devotional poems collected in the Divyaprabandham.
Basically, I would say no, since there are topics for which it is meaningful and rational to resort to arguments from authority. To name an example, if I want to know how you feel, the best thing to do is to ask you.
But even if you don’t agree, let me point to the distinction between
- the use of such arguments as a way to close a discussion (e.g., “It is the case that X, because an authoritative source said it”)
- the use of such arguments as part of a discussion or as opening a discussion (e.g., “An authoritative source tells us that X, how shall we understand it?”)
The Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta is a philosophical and theological school active chiefly in South India, from the last centuries of the first millennium until today and holding that the Ultimate is a personal God who is the only existing entity and of whom everything else (from matter to human and other living beings) is a characteristic.
Several distinct component are constitutive of what we now know to be Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta and are not present at the time of Rāmānuja:
- 1. The inclusion of the Āḻvār’s theology in Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta
- 2. The Pāñcarātra orientation of both subschools of Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta
- 3. The two sub-schools
- 4. The Vedāntisation of Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta
- 5. The impact of other schools
The starting point of the present investigation is the fact that between Rāmānuja and Veṅkaṭanātha a significant change appears to have occurred in the scenario of what was later known as Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta (the term is only found after Sudarśana Sūri). The Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta as we know it was more or less there by the time of Veṅkaṭanātha, whereas in order to detect it in the oeuvre of Rāmānuja one needs to retrospectively interpret it in the light of its successive developments. This holds true even more, although in a different way, for Rāmānuja’s predecessors, such as Yāmuna, Nāthamuni and the semi-mythical Dramiḍācārya etc.
Last week took place one of the main (or the main?) conferences for Sanskrit scholars, namely the 16th edition of the World Sanskrit Conference, of which you can read a short summary by McComas Taylor on Indology (look for it here). Marcus Schmücker and I organised a panel called One God—One Śāstra, Philosophical developments towards and within Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta between Nāthamuni and Veṅkaṭanātha. You can read the initial call for papers here.
Was Rāmānuja the first author of the Vedāntisation of the current(s) which later became well-known as Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta? Possibly yes. But, one might suggest that there are many Upaniṣadic quotations also in Yāmuna’s Ātmasiddhi and that Rāmānuja’s Śrībhāṣya seems to speak to an already well-established audience, and I wonder how could this have been the case if he were the first one attempting the Vedāntisation…
Some authors tend to think that once upon a time there was one Yoga and that later this has been “altered” or has at least “evolved” into many forms. According to their own stand, they might look at this developments as meaningful adaptations or as soulless metamorphoseis.
It is difficult to disentangle the different roots of what is now known as Śrīvaiṣṇavism, since this term is usually the label attributed to the religious counterpart of the philosophical-theological school of Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta. However, Vaiṣṇavism was apparently an important presence in South India well before the beginning of the philosophical enterprise
A philosopher might end up having a double affiliation, to the philosophical standpoints shared by one’s fellow philosophers, and to the religious program of one’s faith.
This can lead to difficult reinterpretations (such as that of Christ with the Neoplatonic Nous, or that of God with the Aristotelic primum movens immobile), or just to juxtapositions (the addition of angels to the list of possible living beings).
A Vaiṣṇava who starts doing philosophy after centuries of religious texts speaking of Viṣṇu’s manifestations (vibhūti), of His qualities and His spouse Lakṣmī (or Śrī or other names), is in a similar difficult situation.